Engaging your online course community with purpose

Engaging your online course community with purpose
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Online communities have a lot in common with parties. We want them to feel lively, engaging, and, well—fun. But, we’ve all been to a party that had all the trappings of festivity—loud music, lots of people, good snacks—and still gone home feeling less fulfilled than we might have if we had just sat down for a deep conversation with a close friend. The same can be true of online communities engagement strategies. Communities can feel noisy and active—and yet still be unsatisfying to members or not very impactful to the business that runs them.

Conversations that matter

Usually, what makes a seemingly engaged community miss the mark is lack of purpose. This often comes from accidentally optimizing for quantity over quality. In other words, when learning how to engage a community online, you may find you’re focusing on getting the most conversations to happen in your community instead of the best conversations.

But, communities that are optimized for quality, on the other hand, tend to be driven by a strong sense of purpose. They have a reason for members to be there, a reason for them to come back, and a reason the community helps your business thrive.

Here, we’ll share a few ways your online community engagement can help your online course business succeed, and we’ll give you engagement tricks you can try in your community.

Streamlining content creation

Even if you only launch one course each year, chances are you still create content regularly. From providing value to your email list with your newsletter to establishing thought leadership on your social media channel of choice to gradually working on creating your next big course, content creation is a big task.

When you optimize for quality engagement in your community, the content your students generate through discussion can be a big help. Beyond inspiring topics for you to create content around, oftentimes community contributions are actually 90% of the way to being content that’s ready to publish.

Maybe a member shares a quick tip that helped them master your course topic. You may use their post with a quick intro and outro to structure a newsletter. Or, perhaps a member shares a picture of themselves working on your course. With a quick caption from you, that would be great for social media.

Even better: When you start to see your community as a content marketing pipeline that feeds your entire business, it will help you shift toward designing engagement opportunities that elicit quality conversations, not just fleeting chatter. And, your students will love seeing their contributions in your content strategy. Just make sure to credit them!

Engagement tricks to try if you want to optimize for high quality, user-generated content:

  • Make a habit of sharing the best member contribution from your community on your social media channel of choice each week. And, share them back in your community. Your members will pick up on the ritual and feel inspired to share their highest quality content.
  • Highlight the best member content by pinning it or shouting it out in an end-of-week post. Other members will start to see what you value and will cater their contributions to match.
  • Ask open-ended engagement questions and ditch “click-bait-y” ones. It’s more important that a few members answer your engagement prompts with thoughtful responses than to optimize for as many responses as possible.

That’s valid

Creating new courses for your audience is hard work. And, you always want to make sure the content you spend time creating is content your audience really wants. So, you should see your community as a testing ground for content. Before you ever create a course or decide to write a blog post on a topic, you can start by gauging interest in your community.

But, this doesn’t mean you’ll simply use polls or “this or that” questions to get your community members to weigh in on decisions directly. You can actually fold in your validation into your existing engagement strategies.

As you work to engage your community members through weekly or even daily engagement prompts, don’t design prompts at random. Rather, use them as a chance to test your community’s interest in subjects you’re considering creating content on.

If you can’t get community members to weigh in on a question about a certain topic, chances are, they’re not interested enough to buy a course on it, either.

You can also give your community members early access to content you’re creating but haven’t made available to the public yet. This gives you valuable feedback and gives community members exclusive access to new content, which is a great incentive for active participation.

Engagement tricks to try if you want to optimize for validating your ideas before you invest in them:

  • Create a “student council” from your most engaged community members and let them beta test new courses for free. Talk about them in your community often, so your other members see that engaging actively can lead to big rewards.
  • Run a monthly or quarterly workshop in your community. It’ll be a good chance for you to practice teaching new content and create enormous value for your community members.
  • As a way of saying thank you to your community members for saving you time working on the wrong content ideas, give them bonus content (like a one-page guide or a live Q&A) on the topics they help you validate.

When retention > acquisition

Marketing’s hard. You put so much effort into finding your students and building that storied “know, like, and trust” relationship with them. Focussing on retaining those customers who are already big fans—versus always hustling to get more new customers—can be a great way to make the most sustainable business out of even a small audience. High quality online community engagement is extremely aligned with an approach that puts retention over acquisition.

In the context of an online course business, you have the best shot at retaining your students—whether that means having them stay on a subscription or buying another course—when you help them reach outcomes.

Creating space for students to practice skills, get support and solidarity from other students, and get feedback from you, can be a great way to think about an online community engagement strategy that really matters.

If your community is a place where students actually get more value out of their purchase because they build the skill they set out to, they’ll keep coming back—not just to your community but to you as a course creator.

Engagement tricks to try if you want to optimize for retaining students:

  • Host live “co-working sessions” in your community where students can come practice the skill they’re learning and get feedback from you.
  • Host weekly or monthly “challenges” in your community that let members practice a particular skill or work toward an outcome synchronously, even if your course is self-paced.
  • Include call-to-actions in your course content that encourage students to post their struggles with the content in the community for peer and instructor feedback.

When you start to shift your mindset so that you’re always optimizing for a particular outcome for your business—whether that’s retaining more students, validating your content ideas, or creating a content marketing pipeline—you’ll also find you’re creating a higher quality community experience for your members.

If you’re just getting started with community, you can check out some engagement strategies geared toward brand new communities here. Happy engaging—with purpose!

Noele Flowers

Noele Flowers, Noele Flowers is the former Community Manager at Teachable and an expert in building communities. She's currently at Commsor building education for community managers. In her free time, she loves cooking, writing music, and home brewing kombucha.

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